The 1889 typhoid epidemic in Negaunee

A list of patients and their water source from Negaunee's 1889 typhoid epidemic. (Photo courtesy of Marquette Regional History Center)

During the 19th century, typhoid fever was not uncommon in Upper Peninsula, so when William Prisk, age 20, died in Negaunee on Aug. 26, 1889, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But two weeks later, the paper noted, that while the number of typhoid fever cases in Negaunee was not increasing, there were so many cases that local doctors Lombard and Sheldon were unable to visit them all as often as they wished, and they consequently called in the assistance of Dr. Felch of Ishpeming who was coming down every afternoon.

By mid-September 1889, the president of the state board of health had already visited Negaunee to confer with the local doctors. He is probably responsible for a document which runs to some 14 pages. In it, Drs. Sheldon, Lombard, Mackenzie, and Morse list all of their typhoid patients and their source of water, hoping to identify the source of the infection. In all they documented 324 patients, most getting their water from Teal Lake or other wells in the Negaunee area. Based on this information, water samples from both the Negaunee City Water and the Jackson location, were sent back to Ann Arbor for testing in the state laboratory at the University of Michigan and the recommendation was made that all drinking water be boiled before use.

Even though the medical community was taking the outbreak seriously, there was still an attempt to downplay the situation. On Sept. 21, the Mining Journal article began “The typhoid fever epidemic — for such outside papers call it — is not abating any.” They acknowledged that there were about 100 cases with three to six new cases every day but they reported that while some cases were quite severe, most patients were doing well.

Their optimism proved unrealistic. The following week reported that “there is as yet no diminution in the virulence of the typhoid fever epidemic here. New cases develop every day, and in most cases those taken down with the disease have it in a severe form.” That week there were four deaths including two in Negaunee and one each in Ishpeming and Republic.

In early October, a new law took effect. Typhoid was now a reportable disease joining other diseases including scarlet fever, diphtheria and small pox that had to be reported to the state health officials (although influenza was not yet on the list). Physicians who failed to report the disease could be punished by a fine of $50 to $100 or up to 90 days in jail.

In mid-October the water quality tests were finally completed and it was not good. At the time, there were no absolute standards for the purity of drinking water but there was agreement that free ammonia should not exceed 0.05 parts per million. Negaunee city water samples 1 and 2 were 22.8 and 23.2 parts per million respectively, while the mine water tested was 31.2, more than 600 times higher than the limits. They also checked albuminoid ammonia levels. If it was greater than 0.10 parts per million the water was regarded as suspicious, if it was higher than 0.15 parts per million, it should “certainly not be used.” The mine water was the best of the three samples at 23.6. The city water samples were 36.8 and 46.0 parts per million. The report noted that “We have had no water which approached this in impurity, save one sample from Iron Mountain, two years ago, when such a severe epidemic of typhoid fever prevailed there.

On Oct. 26, a typhoid patient, Mrs. John Oberg, attempted to commit suicide by cutting her throat in two places with a table knife. She had been sick for several weeks and at times the fever made her delirious. She was described as being despondent due to her lack of recovery, but one of the newspaper articles describes her illness as puerperal fever, which is a uterine infection associated with childbirth, so she may also have been suffering from some type of postpartum depression. She survived her initial suicide attempt only to die three weeks later on Nov. 11. Different obituaries list different causes of death, so we don’t know if she died from typhoid, her injuries, or a combination of the two.

Around the same time as Mrs. Oberg’s suicide attempt, Dr. D. L. Flanders of Sturgis in the Lower Peninsula, arrived in Negaunee. He was selling “Diffusible Tonic,” “a remedy for fever which he is confident will knock out every case of typhoid fever in the city, unless the fever has advanced to such a stage that nothing further can be done for the patient by human skill.” Dr. Flanders claimed to have used the medicine to great success in treating cases of yellow fever in Florida and other locations.

The newspaper and the local doctors were somewhat skeptical of Dr. Flanders’ claims but he offered both consultations and the medicine free of charge, depending entirely on future sales for compensation. Despite their concerns The Mining Journal advised people to call on Dr. Flanders, “It costs nothing and there may be much gained by it.” “If it is as powerful as it is said, the danger from a typhoid fever epidemic is practically over.” Dr. Flanders remained in Negaunee for two weeks, “Treating a large number of cases with ‘signal success.'” His medication was also utilized by the local physicians and the nursing sisters of St. Joseph, who also reported success in treating patients.

In early November, the typhoid epidemic began winding down. It was reported that Marquette County had spent $500 in supplies that were distributed to families whose means of support were cut off by the illness of the male family members. By the end of the month, the local “pest house” had been thoroughly renovated and cleaned. Several of the remaining cases were sent there, so they could be isolated and receive better care than they had at home.

The last reported death of the epidemic was 15-year-old Ida Walter who died on Nov. 25. The final note in the paper, just before Christmas, “It is quite probable that some steps will be taken by the city authorities to give the people of Negaunee a better water supply before spring. So far nothing definite has been determined on, but the matter will be thoroughly canvassed. The water now furnished has been pronounced bad by the state chemist and if anything can be done to improve the supply it certainly should be done.”